Disney / Pixar’s Elemental, premiering only in theaters June 16, boasts a colorful pallet of state-of-the-art visuals and special effects as only Pixar can deliver. During a recent long-lead press day visit to Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters, we were treated to a detailed look at how incredibly complex the film was to imagine and create. Elemental takes advantage of bleeding edge technology, and quite simply, the film could not have been made five years ago.
My favorite statistic from the day stemmed from a simple PowerPoint slide indicating the advancements in computing power required to render Pixar films throughout its nearly 30 years in the feature film business. Toy Story featured just under 300 computers. Monsters, Inc., required around 700. The early water sequences of Finding Nemo pushed that number up to 1,000. To fully render Elemental, Pixar required over 151,000 computers.
But the technological aspects of the film are essentially nothing without the deeply felt emotions and personal stories infused into the film by its director Peter Sohn, the hand-chosen director who completed The Good Dinosaur after one of Pixar’s legendary creative team shake-ups and the visual inspiration for Russell from Pete Docter’s Up. Sohn looked to his immigrant family history and the great lengths his parents went to build a better life for themselves in the boroughs of New York City.
“It’s really a mix of three very personal parts of my life. My parents came here from Korea in the late 60s or early 70s to New York. They didn’t have a lot of money, they had no family, they didn’t speak any English, but they managed to create a beautiful life in the Bronx,” Sohn explained.
One of the earliest sequences in the film show to members of the press featured two fire elements who arrive on the shores of Element City and are processed through an Ellis Island-like building. Since they only speak fire language, the immigration officer gives them new names reminiscent of the early America immigrant experience of the 1900s. Of course, the officer clearly loved puns as he named them Bernie and Cinder.
As Bernie and Cinder wander in amazement at their new home, every door slams in their face as other elements refuse to mix with fire. When Bernie and Cinder finally settle down, they open what amounts to a fire-based bodega similar to the grocery story Sohn’s own father opened. Bernie’s store allowed Pixar animators to fill the frame with wall-to-wall puns and imaginative ways that fire elements interact with their surroundings. Bernie’s daughter Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) wants to take over the family business, but her literal fiery temper keeps her father firmly in charge.
Another inspiration for the film came in the oddest, but perhaps completely most obvious, of places.
“When I saw the periodic table of elements when I was a kid, all I thought about was that the columns were apartment complexes, and all of the elements lived next to each other,” Sohn laughed. “Platinum lives next to gold, but be careful of mercury because they have toxic relationships! Stories of what these elements were doing in their apartments were just mixing around in my head.”
The final personal ingredient that resulted in Elemental comes from Sohn’s later marriage to a non-Korean woman. Sohn recalled that his grandmother’s near-last words were “Marry Korean,” a moment recaptured in the film. Further sequences seen in the recently released trailer show Pixar dipping their toe in the romantic comedy pool for the first time. We’re treated to water element Wade (Mamoudou Athie) attempting to bridge the culture gap by trying Ember’s family cooking, which obviously doesn’t go swimmingly.
That gradual evolution of the character interactions grounds the story and makes it fully relatable for audiences around the world.
“The last little piece was my wife and the experience of marrying someone that wasn’t Korean or a non-Korean woman, as she loves to say. It created all these sorts of culture clashes, but even with these key pieces in place we could go anywhere. The possibilities were endless,” Sohn recalled. “Once we came up with the idea of opposites attracting, fire and water, these opposites and their relationship became our clear focus of the film. Once we identified that as our North Star, we could adjust the characters and obstacles that could happen to them. With these three key inspirations and our guiding light of opposites attracting, the story started to come together.”
Even though Sohn and his personal family story inspired the characters of Ember and her parents, a very important piece of him made its way into Athie’s Wade. Naturally a water element, audiences will discover that Wade, the romantic male lead of the film, boasts a deeply emotional side.
It all stemmed from the deeply emotional and easily moved to tears Peter Sohn.
“When we first started the character, I was always drawing him crying. I am a sap full on. I could break down at every YouTube video of the soldier returning home and ‘We’re getting married!’ and the US Olympic moments. I kept drawing Wade in this sort of emotional way,” Sohn shared. “We’ve just finished the final shots recently, and I cry every time I see it. I’m so proud of what the teams created. It started as a very personal thing for me, and it turned into so much more. I can’t wait for everyone to see it this summer on the big screen!”
Elemental opens Friday, June 16, in theaters only.